Modern life seems urban by definition, and modernity cannot be conceived outside the context of the city which provides an arena for circulation of bodies and goods, the exchange of glances, and the exercise of consumerism. It is not by chance then that some of the major analysts at the beginning of the century, such as Simmel and Benjamin, founded in the description of film a kind of double of the physical and perceptual shocks that characterized the subjective experience in the modern urban environment. To this regard the link between cinema and modernity seems to stand in the fact that cinema is at the same time a specific form of perception, a new means of encountering reality, and part of a reality perceived as such for the first time.
In this paper I would like to use such a suggestion to analyze a quite different historical context: moving from the modernist fin de siecle, that was prototypically Baudelaire’s Paris in the nineteenth century, to a radically new and different modernity of twentieth- century, that of mass production, mass consumption, standardization and state media, as it was emerging in Italy during the Thirties. This is also a move from a stress on time to one on space, or I would say from Benjamin to Kracauer. I will look, in fact, at how film practice occurred through particular and different social sites. Analizing the “surface”, a topography of the ephemeral and culturally despised products of the period, my aim is to try to connect different and conflicting images identified with women and modernization that emerged on the screen with the processes of an acculturation to consumer society which were going on outside the movie theatres. Emphasizing the site of film practice as a spatial issue, I would like to go over the limits of the concept of “cinematic apparatus” for historical interpretation, that made difficult to understand the relation between the “cinematic” and the historical subjects except in terms of their capture within the apparatus itself, as James Hay has noted. The systematic standardization of narrative form and spectatorial response indeed cannot fully account for the cultural formation of cinema, for the actual theater experience and locally and historically variable dynamics of reception. Following James Hay’s claim, I will present a perspective in which “cinema is not seen in a dichotomous relation with the social, but as dispersed within an environment of sites that defines (in spatial terms) the meanings, uses, and place of “the cinematic”. The cinema is a place distinct from other sites but, in its relation to these other sites, part of the formation of a territory which it works to map” (Hay, 1997: 214).
The first reason that I was pushed to focus on Gli uomini ...che mascalzoni is related to the “comedy genre” to which it belongs. In the first years of the twentieth century it is above all the futurist avant-garde which celebrated the possibilities opened by the cinematographic image in order to embody the modernist utopia of the metropolis. With the coming of sound and the redefinition of the cinematographic language it is the genre of comedy, one of the cinematographic genres closest to theatre both in terms of sources and methods of “mise en scene”, which takes advantage of these demands more than any other. It is within its codes, of whom Mario Camerini was one of the most original and significant interpreters, that a whole set of relations is determined between cinematographic representations of the urban experience and spectacular dimensions, between the city and the experience of its inhabitants.
So in the first part of my paper I will focus on the film’s textual construction both in terms of visual and narrative codes; in the second I will refer to the appropriation and readings, discoursively defined, of these representations through some places where film were practiced by women, referring mainly to the first half of the decade; and the last part will focus on the attempt to analyze the change from the urban space to the spectacle of merchandise as the paradigmatic representation of modernization trying to give evidence of the connections with the specific conditions that accompanied the rise of consumer culture in Italy during the Thirties. It is precisly in this connection that I would try to place the way in which the trope of the New Woman was reworked by fascist discourse within the contradictory interpellation issued to women.
1. Journey into the urban landscape
Dawn, early morning. A rolling shutter is opening and lets Milano’s Cathedral and the Madonnina wrapped up by the fog appear. The courtains are slowly removed and one observes the life of the city which begins to wake. Through a panoramic shot we see cars moving, the newspaper kiosk opening, workers going to or coming back from work, the trams leaving the depot.
This first scene that opens Gli uomini...che mascalzoni apparently has little to do with the narrative which develops throughout the film in terms of presentation of characters. The hand that opens the window in the first scene is not connected to any of the character or actions of the narrative, rather it seems to present a non-human protagonist: the city with its new geography, its codes, its flowing between different processes of signification.
The plot develops around the love affair between Bruno, a mechanic/chaffeur who falls in love with Mariuccia, a shop-girl and daughter of a taxi driver. As often happens in sentimental comedies of this period, it involves a chain of misunderstandings that hinder the fulfilment of their romance, and each trouble in which the couple is involved dramatizes the articulations of the contradictions arising from urban life, as I will try to show. The first scene then seems rather to have the role of indicating a kind of visual sub-text that crosses the narration and in relation to which the story of the two protagonists offers the pretext for mapping the physical and mental geography of Milan.
About three-fourths of the action is set outdoors. A cinematographic style that suggests a metaphoric reach that satisfied the craving for visual control and codification over a rapidly expanding reality. Cinema, as a new medium, rationalized the irrational forces of modern production attempting to make a reconstituted model of vision as body-bound rather than independent of the subject of vision. In this case the dialectics between a visible already known to the audience, and the emergence of a new set of images is quite crucial (Sorlin,1979). As one of the book reviews underlined, this film shows “how one can handle an intimist, amiable comic-sentimental comedy, in the context of a Milan that not all the Ambrosians knew they had, and for whom the film was a real moment of discovery”
. In similar terms Filippo Sacchi reviewed the film in the pages of the “Corriere della sera”:
“It is a film that in its characterization and atmosphere is profoundly ours (...)The film, a simple love story between a young shop-girl and a driver (...) is truly a ray of youth and joy for its public. As one knows the action takes place in Milan. This is the first time we have seen Milan on the screen. And who would suspect that it is so photogenic?”
The spectator is elevated into a voyeur. The images shown on the screen put him/her at a distance from the urban reality. The film transforms the bewitching world one is possessed by into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It offers a sensationalized simulacrum of the real, making the complexity and opacity of the city readable. The instability of modern life is stressed and presented in the starting scenes not only by the artificial nature of urban life, evoked by the fading away of any natural distinction between day and night, but also through the material context in which Bruno and Mariuccia lives are involved.
But the narration, rather than moving from the negative image of proliferation of urban civil disorder, plays a different function. The city is crossed and run across by the protagonists either in cars, buses, on foot, so composing a network of relations between places and values, past and present, and different patterns of modernization: home vs. street, old vs. modern, city vs. countryside, the commercial centre of Milan vs. the Sample Fair (Fiera Campionaria). Envisioning different places and putting them into a narrative order, a kind of order of meanings emerges: a cognitive mapping linking different meanings to each other.
The social identity of both the characters is indeed described not through a hierarchical relationship within family, but through a kind of horizontal line which links them to different environments from theirs. The move from the past towards modern attitudes is shown, for example, through the opposition between the worlds inhabited by Mariuccia’s father, and by herself. Once his night shift in the taxi is finished he goes to the coffee shop, one of the male-oriented public space in which the link with tradition is underlined by the Milan dialect spoken by the customers, then he goes home, wakes up Mariuccia befor going to sleep. She in turn leaves her room, stops at the news-stand before catching the tram, and heads for the centre of the city where she works in a perfumer’s. Day and night contribute to the visual evidenzing of the contrast between a typically traditional space and that of the commercial culture explored by Mariuccia. Her exploration took place indeed not in the ritual spaces of “milanesità” -those of the Galleries and cafes- but within places and past-times in which the gender and class hierarchical relationships are less visible and the state’s ability to control is less strong, as department stores, dance halls, movie theatres. Mariuccia’s work indeed refers to a complex group of symbols linked to the desire for a more modern and comfortable life. She at first works as a shop-girl in a perfumer’s shop and later, in the second part of the film, she works at a stall in the sample fair in the same field of commerce. A subject shared by a lot of films during the thirties that were constructed around the experience of women seeking work in the city. La segretaria privata (1931) La telefonista (1932), La segretaria per tutti (1933) all thematize the entering of women not only into the job market, but above all into the commercial world. In a similar function the car stands at the centre of a desire for modernity. It is presented as a symbol of the wealthy characters, and stands between Bruno e Mariuccia from the beginning, in a context in which social mobility is one of the main topics. When Bruno tries to woo Mariuccia, who is walking on the street with her colleagues, the dialogue which goes on is quite symptomatic of the status symbol represented by the car:
Shop-girls: “We don’t like men on bycicles”
Bruno: “I see! For you a car it’s necessary!
Shop-girls: Of course!
Bruno: Then I’ll buy a car!”
The several misunderstandings the protagonists run into form a kind of apprenticeship for adult life which has become necessary thanks to the rapidity of changes which break the link of continuity between generations and which demand a mobility never before seen. Mariuccia accepts Bruno’s invitation for a short trip to the lakes, but she finds herself alone and forced to ask for shelter in a trattoria where they had stopped to drink. In turn Bruno, having used a car which was not his own in order to impress Mariuccia, is fired and finds himself unemployed.
So, it is the spatial organization of social relations and their codifications which transform Milan from a site in which the film is set, to an urban space (Lefevre, 1991). The city is not only its established physical site but also a set of structures, of cultural values, and of symbolic references. According to Michel De Certeau tales and narrations, carry out a job which constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places:
“A space exists when one takes into consideration vector of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operation that orient it, situate it, temporalize it (...) In short, space is a practiced place” (De Certau, 1984:117)
These remarks also seem to apply to the cinema. The very complexity of its language, which links the narrative plot and the moving images, suggests its function as interface between the without and the within of the movie theatre. Between Corso Sempione where Mariuccia lives -which expressed “the atmosphere of a certain suburban Milan” as Ivo Perilli recalls- and the centre symbolized by the artificial environment of the perfumer -one of the typical environments “alla Medin”-, the two protagonists persuit of each other has as a background the city covered in billboards, shop windows and banners. A contrast which must have appeared even starker to viewers of that time. It was precisely the period in which a succession of building regulations contributed on the one hand to define the external limit of the city, and on the other to reorganizing the centre according to the pressure created by tertiary activity in full expansion. Between the twenties and thirties urban interventions had transformed the physionomy of Milan and its residential distribution: 80% of the central area had been reconstructed and residential building units redistributed to the suburb.
But urban space is defined not only by the opposition between a central commercial area and a working class suburbia, but also in relation to a more radical otherness: the “non city”. To this regard the sequence on the excursion to the lakes is quite crucial. In this case it is not so much the immersion in and identification with nature which prevales but its objectivization. The speed of the trip contrasts with the calm prevailing at the arrival at the lakes. The countryside here neither symbolizes the origins of Italian tradition, nor assumes the notes of a nostalgic idyll, as later in Quattro passi tra le nuvole. Rather it appears at the spectator as still, like the lake’s water, almost without life, cristallized by the voyeuristic and touristic glance. This sequence involves a cancellation of any depth, celebrated through the speed with which the countryside flashes by on the side of the new Milan-Lakes freeway, inaugurated in 1925, crossed in a flash and over many takes by the “Isidora Fraschini”. The way of spending one’s spare time is also constructed as an opposite. Bruno and Mariuccia stop in a modest tavern where old people play bocce all day long and sing mountain and soldier songs. Elderly couples dance to slightly outdated tunes. The simple, idyllic pleasure of the country folk makes the fact that the couple does not belong to this world clear. This seems a society comprised merely of an older generation with outdated diversions. It is something to consume rather than something in which one’s origins are rooted or something which could give people a sense of identity. The modernity and urbanity of the couple is symbolized instead by the self-confidence with which they dance a modern song Parlami d’amore Mariù on the tavern’s jukebox, in front of the admiring glances of the other customers; a successful song, composed by the couple Cherubini-Bixio, that this movie contributed to the launch of, and which became very popular.
The city as a living and active complex assumes an importance within the narrated story and therefore out of the esperience its protagonists make of it. Bruno and Mariuccia’s story assumes, then, the significance and the pace of a journey, an uncertain exploration of social space in which the desire for the new, adventure, losing oneself and, lastly, newly collocating oneself, all take form.
The whole set of relationships between spaces, symbols and character “modernization” find in gender a crucial symbolic structure around which the cinematographic representations are articulated. It reveals an image based on a leading role of the female protagonist. By reconstructing the intersecting of different levels of the narration the female protagonist emerges as the bond between tradition and modernity and between different worlds. Her movements determine the path of discovering and mapping the new city. Mariuccia is also at the core of relationships, with high class and lower, between work and leisure, orienting herself and the people that live near her into the modernity. As in other Italian films of the period female protagonists give a voice to the desire for the new, and the attraction and impulse towards discovery much more than their male counterparts. It is the young women, rather than their male companions, who manipulate the resources which modern life offers to their own advantage. It is indeed Mariuccia who finds a job for Bruno in the Sample Fair. Bruno is instead depicted as a man without roots in any familiar networks, he is at the mercy of events, disoriented by the quick shifting of his social environment. This takes the shape of a symbolic declaration of the male loss of control over the familiar world. The Sample Fair on the outskirts of Milan periphery is represented as a microcosmos where the latest inventions of industry and the market-place are aligned and assume spectacular dimensions, a kind of double of the commercial centre, an artificial space for modernity created by the regime to display Italian corporate image and technical development. Here while in an earlier moment, in which Bruno wanders between the stands like a spectator, the element of seduction and fascination created by the modernity on show dominates; in a later moment, when he himself begins to work in one of the stands at the fair, the delusion and even humiliation which the protagonsit must undergo in the role of setting up of potential clients is underlined. This is quite clear in the sort of carnivalesque manner in which Bruno’s job at the sample fair is depicted. The job is itself quite ridiculous: he has to stand near a fountain explaining the way it works to people through a megaphone attached to his neck. A crowd of spectators gathers around him not because they are interested in the fountain mechanism but rather because they are amused by the fact that he’s being drenched by the misdirected spray of the water.
Industrialism, technological development and mass society, demonstrate here their dehumanizing power which threatens to destroy the identity and integrity of the individual, isolating him from the community to which he belongs and leaving him to drown in the market amporphous mass.
As Victoria De Grazia has underlined, going out presupposed for young women besides the physical movement, a work of immagination that defied the traditional distinction between private and public, between female and male fields (De Grazia: 1992). The screen records a new female visibility on a social and cultural level, and in the imaginary of consumerism. The success of La segretaria privata, which in only few days recorded surprising ticket sales for that period, inaugurates a series of films which have as protagonists secretaries, La telefonista (1932), shop assistants Il signore desidera? (1933), female students and teachers La maestrina (1942) Seconda B (1938) Maddalena zero in condotta (1940), modistes La contessa di Parma (1937). And yet, while the cinema records this change, the space in which these female images are allowed to live is a predominantly fantasmatic space. Indeed it seems to me that this is the category which permits us to interpret the gap between material tensions and accessable models within the historical context of the thirties, on one side, and the specific mise en scéne of cinematographic representations, on the other, highlighting the contradictory relationship between the changes on the level of patterns of behavior and that on the level of modes of representation, which involved the female experience in the year of Fascism
The centrality of processes of mise en scéne which makes the female protagonists real figures of modernity, is confermed by the fact that it is almost as difficult to find a baby in a comedy as it is to come across a black shirt. Indeed the glamour which these figures come to be sorrounded by contrasts strongly with the reality of the labour market in the thirties. Not only in quantitative terms of possibility of access, but above all if one thinks of the emphasis on a quick turn over of women workers, the high percentage of apprentices who were often dismissed before reaching the stability of a fixed position of work, the standardization, and the repetitive nature of tasks, in the professional positions under consideration. The average wage for shorthan-typists, telephone operators and shop assistants fluctuated around the 300 lire mark in the first half of the thirties, an amount which did not allow one to live with dignity, let alone to keep up to date with consumption or to participate in the new forms of entertainment in the city, and obliged young women to depend on other family incomes.
What kind of meaning was beneath these images for the female audience?
The closure of Gli uomini che...mascalzoni seems to reconfirm not only the traditional order, but traditional gender hierarchy as well . Bruno and Mariuccia stand in Mariuccia’s father’s taxi without being aware of this fact and Bruno asks Mariuccia to marry him, stating: “Come on! That’s enough of the perfumer’s! Always at home to prepare risottos”. As in the case of the various secretaries and shop assistants her work and her ability to manipulate the public sphere new resources are presented as a springboard which gives visibility to ambitions that have their crowning moment in a dream of private health, comfort and happiness.
On the one hand this type of narrative strategy proposed to act as a guide and initiator to the new and unonomous interpersonal relationships charatceristic of the city; on the other hand it offered a comfort and remedy, adapting the new conditions of life and the new consumption to traditional mental schemes. Nevertheless this closure, does not elide the potential lying within Mariuccia’s character, as I will try to explain in a moment, moving from the textual construction of the film to address the problem of audience and how the women’s position is constructed within other sites where films were practiced.
Addressing the audience.
I would like to return for a moment to the initial sequence in which the camera follows Mariuccia from her bedroom, decorated with photos of actresses, then as she goes to the newsagents to buy “Piccola”, and finally as she takes the tram to work in the commercial area of Milan. This narrative sequence suggests that there is a complex web of links between different media forms which mediate between the daily lives of young women and the ‘modern dream’, the smart perfumer’s where she works. Within the burgeoning cultural industry, film both presents the models and figures of the collective imagination, and also facilitates their spread and transformation. This forms a circularity based on an integrated system comprising not only films but also wide areas of consumerism in which these images circled: from women’s magazines to film magazines to novels based on films, to lowbrow literature and popular songs. Through these channels a storyline of representations and images emerges; a plot that renders the various mythologies of modernisation shown on the screen credibly ‘real’. With the spread of these images Cinema entered the lives of Italians who, without even being regular cinema-goers, became aware of what was going on. In parallel, flanking the gossip columns on the lives of cinema divas in women’s magazines appeared fashion pages, tips on homes and decoration and beauty pages, all of which directed the reader towards new ways of looking and behaving. This is the space in which a new set of relationships between advertising-star system-consumerism was constructed. What I would like to suggest is that in this historical period there was a particular intensity to the growing tension between film as a ‘myth’ and film as a ‘model’. It was the Hollywood-style star system mechanism that fed the first, whereas Italian film culture encouraged an identification, or at least the converging of the positions of spectators and consumers.
In the years around 1930 a genuine magazine campaign raged, declaring the “waning of the femme fatale”, and of the vamp; images associated with the phenomenon of American stars and Italian divas in silent films. The subversive qualities of the female body became normalised by ranks of young ladies and child-women who multiplied in the repertory of tomboys, cheeky girls, secretaries and shop-girls portrayed in Italian cinema. Giovanna Grignaffini, in her analysis of the specificity of Italian ‘divismo’ of the thirties, draws attention to the undeniable ‘loss of aura’ of the famous divas of that period. Its significance it is stressed by the fact that this can be placed within two periods in which contrarily there was a definite investment in the female diva figure. The prototype of this phenomenon is Assia Noris, whose screen image, according to Giovanna Grignaffini, incarnates an aspect of femininity that runs through Italian cinema “Like a pure ray of light, physically weightless, manages to purify the face of any gender associations to throw it back as an abstract indicator of generation rather than gender.” (1999: 71).
If we analyse the way that interviews and magazine articles describe Leda Gloria and Elsa Merlini, Maria Denis and Germana Paolieri, a change of register away from Hollywoodian diva-worship can in fact be noted. The emphasis is no longer on the extraordinary facts of their lives, but rather on their normality. They are presented as ‘modern’ young girls who buy the same women’s magazines as their readers and adore the same American heart-throbs, thus reinforcing a form of identification with the characters portrayed on the screen. This last aspect is reinforced by references linking the inside and outside of the movie theatres which are disseminated in film texts. The scene of Mariuccia buying ‘Piccola’ at the news-stand in Gli uomini…che mascalzoni (Men…what rascals) is not in fact an isolated example. On the wall near the entrance to the perfumer’s where Mariuccia works there is a billboard advertisement for a show by “Za Bum”; a famous Milan theatre company, while in Grandi Magazzini (Department Stores) a poster for the film Batticuore (Heartbeat), which came out in the same year, is shown twice. In all these examples the contemporaneity of the processes of mise en scéne seems to have the function of suggesting and reinforcing the viewers identification with film characters as modern consumers.
In the light of these considerations I would like to return to the question of the specific relationship that is established between the way that femininity is portrayed during the thirties and the subjectivity of women viewers. The way that the female body is put in “uniform” in film can be seen in the context of the much more severe operation carried out by fascism that regimented women into Fasci Femminili, rural peasant women, young fascist girls and athletes organizations. The slight bodies of these actresses are dressed up and dressed down; their hairstyles change and they flit through the areas of work, free time and the home. They manipulate the resources of the public arena within a largely traditional order. A set of representations which opened up a space in which women could interpret the images on offer to widen the range of possible roles that they could adopt.
Although in the nineteen thirties the scope for emancipation were extremely confined to an authoritative framework, these images continued to work on the collective imagination and to model expectations and mutations in the subjectivity that were to gather strength after the war. The position of women viewer-consumers was in fact defined in the “tension between the rhetoric of expansion and unlimited opportunities that was an element of the modern ethos and the conditions which, in practical terms, conspired to severely limit women’s autonomy and possibilities for exploration.” (Ben Ghiat, 2000: 302). The same contradiction inspires the young women lives whose traces Alba de Cespedes follows in the novel No-one comes back (Nessuno torna indietro), published in 1938 and that suddenly became a best seller. The same author went on to declare “Mondadori told me that this title had to be changed, because it wasn’t right, and so I said, but no, it has be called that because when they come out of this cloistering and meet in the courtyard they are all different (…) the only thing that unites them is that none of them goes back!”
3. From the urban space to the spectacle of merchandise
In the analysis of Gli uomini…che mascalzoni (men…what rascals) I have attempted to focus on the way in which the urban space, with places of work and free time on one side and a world populated with characters from the proletariat and the low middle classes on the other, is elected as a paradigmatic landscape of modernisation through the narratives that involve the shifting of gender, class and generation boundaries. These themes can be found throughout the first half of the decade in another series of films that goes from Rotaie (Railway tracks), to Treno popolare (Popular train), to Il Signor Max (Mr Max).
Around the mid-thirties a significant mutation occurred. The theatrical aspects of the consumer world assumed increasing importance in comedies set in an urban environment, with a meaningful modification of the comedy’s narrative codes. External space is projected into internal space: a perception that becomes evident if we compare Men…what rascals with a successive film by Mario Camerini, Grandi Magazzini (Department stores), which came out in 1939. Once more we have a young couple; Bruno and Lauretta, played by the couple De Sica-Assia Noris, whose emotional vicissitudes demonstrate the appeal of the symbols of wealth and, at the same time, the threat that consumerism poses to conventions and traditions that regulate the relations between the sexes and classes. Having said that, the opening of the visual surface is transferred to the inside of a department store: the place par excellence of the spectacle of merchandise where everything is on show to be touched and tested. This becomes the testing ground of a sort of apprenticeship which pushes the viewer, like the two characters, towards the discipline of desires in consumer society. The Department Store with its large halls, its escalators and display cases does not only allude to the standardisation of the products but also that of the customers: the bodies of the people in the crowd in the shop become mixed into the visual flow of the goods. The interior set of the film, designed by the architect and set designer Guido Fiorini, was built in Cinecittà and modelled on Rinascente but actually took up twice as much space and showed re-elaborated figurative traits that were later to be identified with “Cinema decò”. From the beginning of the thirties it was Gastone Medin who had initiated this style. The architectural and design features of many films are his, in particular those of the first half of the thirties such as the perfumer’s of Men…what rascals. In film after film a sort of “melange” effect is prevalent: an effect that derives from the diffusion of what various European industrial exhibitions were offering, combined with the particular Italian version. This was a process through which film became a privileged space in which “maybe never to such an extent as in this period the meeting of the “vulgarisation” of avant-guard inventions worked with the tendency towards the stylisation of the current forms of mass culture” (Farassino, 1989: 498).
The window of a department store alludes to the threshold between inside and outside, fiction and reality, artificial and authentic; highlighting the gradual process of theatricalisation that includes both codes of mise en scene and narrative strategies. The process of rendering the line between the real world and the realm of the imagination theatrical and spectacular took place in the mid-thirties: a phase characterised by apparently contradictory phenomena. These are the years of the anti-bourgeois campaign: symptom of the increasing visibility and spread of a lifestyle associated with modernisation. The other side of the coin is the abyss between material conditions and the “modern dream” revealed by an even superficial glance at contemporary indicators of levels of consumption. The Census figures of these years actually show that 20 to 25% of Italians were living in dwellings of only one room; very few women had the means to buy domestic appliances; a few privileged people concentrated in the north of Italy owned a car. These simple facts show a gap that was to widen towards the end of the decade under the pressure of the sacrifices imposed by the efforts before for the war in Ethiopia and then in the second world war, which was accompanied by a rapid rise in costs and a drop in consumption. This is the sort of pincer effect that offers a possible interpretative key to the process of ‘theatricalisation’ of the “modern dream” which became increasingly evident towards the end of the thirties in the genre of “white telephones”. In films like Ballo al castello (Dance at the castle), Centomila dollari (one hundred thousand dollars), mille lire al mese ( a thousand lire a month), and Apparizione (Apparition) that came out between 1938 and 1943, important variations within the comedy genre become apparent: fabulous invented Hungarian settings; the increasingly rarefied interiors, the plot based on upper class, if not aristocratic, characters. The body increasingly loses its materiality and the sophisticated and mannered style of the spaces reveal “a whole universe squeezed into the devices of an abstract mise en scene” (Grande, 1986:29). In these films the tension between reality and imagination becomes in a certain way literal by handing over the set the theatre of desires and its related ghosts. It turns out to be imprisoned within the closed space of fiction, impenetrable and unassailable from outside.
In comparison with the circularity that we have noted, cinema seemed to offer itself as a showcase of merchandise rather than as a “consumer model”, and Cinecittà became “a gigantic emporium where, film after film, a myriad of objects and symbols of collective desire are to be explored” (Brunetta, 1989: 199). Revealing a widening gap between the “modern dream” and the Italy of the end of the Thirties, the cinema became one of the many symptoms of the characteristics of “simulacrum” of the experience of modernisation of Italian society. In other words, it seems that we can state that in the second half of the thirties we witness not so much the spread of the consumption of “goods”, which remained the prerogative of limited social groups, but of the consumption of images of modernisation. The cinema, film magazines and women’s magazines produce a legend-creating machine that then turns out to be empty. The idea of “modern” is revealed to be fake decoration on a box that should have contained societal issues, wealth and development.
What does it mean to consume images of modernisation instead of access to material resources? What consequences did these processes have for the shifting of boundaries between imaginary and actual behaviour, or even the removal of these boundaries? In order to try to suggest a possible answer I would stress the two opposite direction in which the connection between women/cinema/modernization developed in the last years of fascism. Two directions which underline process of translation of the idea of the “new woman” in opposite ways. Nevertheless both of them call into question the relationship between processes of identification in the cinema sphere and in the political one.
In the resistence period in the years between 1943 and 1945 a lot of women would use as a pseudonym and fictitious name the one from their favourite movie character. Often reversing the political sign of the meaning attributed to them by the film contents. It is for exemple the case of “Kira” the protagonist of Addia Kira, a film set into the Russian Revolution and with an overt antibolshevik tune.
The second direction concerns the relationships between the mutations within the consumer arena and processes of theatricalisation of politics.
The height of the success of “white telephones” coincided with the growing relevance of phenomena linked to the emphasis on ritual and spectacular dimensions of the political arena. At the end of the decade the gap between promises of democracy and the improvement of quality of life offered by the market, and the illusion that fascism was able to “govern” the process of modernisation, quelling social conflict and softening its impact on cultural models, became ever more visible. The forced modernisation of the regime and the version dreamed up and put in the shop window of nascent Italian commercial culture increasingly take up the rhythm of a “dance macabre”.
Such an image, suggested by the exceptional observer that was Irene Brin, was found to be highly effective in evoking the symbolic role that film took on even in the aftermath of this process. The forms of mythical self-representation of Mussolini and those of the cinema star system are turned upside down not only in the image of Mussolini and Claretta Petacci in piazzale Loreto, which is perhaps not by chance mirrored in the image of Osvaldo Valenti and Luisa Ferida, but also in the way in which that particular piece of history has entered the collective memory. This is the conflict illustrated by the story of Rosina Cesaretti (Gubitosi, 1989). Born in 1919, the same year as fascism, in Leonessa -a tini village in Lazio-, she runs away from home when still very young to try her luck in the cinema industry in Rome. In the accounts gathered by Giovanni Gubitosi she is remembered by others in her village as “gorgeous”, “stunning”, “an oriental beauty, with olive skin and black eyes, a slim figure and perfect features, not too tall”. In 1944 the war forces her back to her village and in the climate that sets in after the fall of fascism she is suspected of being a spy for the fascists or the Germans. She is followed and observed but all that comes to light is that Rosina is only pursuing her dream of becoming an actress and in fact she succeeds in getting involved in an amateur dramatics. But the suspicions against her turn out to be tragically founded when the village, which had been under the control of the Gramsci brigade, is occupied by the Germans on the 4th of April, 1944. Rosina comes forward to the head of the 44 SS and during the night it is she who points out houses and decides who is antifascist and is thus to be eliminated. A long, long night that has remained engraved on the memories of those involved like a slow theatrical scene. Gubitosi writes: “the people of Leonessa remember it as “the night of hell”, or “the bloody night of a cruel woman”, referring to Rosina, who was perhaps mad by then and wanted to bring about a tragedy in which she would finally have the role of prima donna”. She has her brother eliminated, and while the SS spare his pregnant wife from Rosina’s destructive fury 36 men are shot, including the mayor and the priest, in groups of five in front of others who await the same fate. When the massacre is over Rosina follows the retreating Germans and becomes the lover of the commander, whose child she later bears, and then kills herself in the throes of madness.
The way in which these events are remembered by the local people links together the “modern dream”; the materialisation of the desire to command the scene and wield female power, and the ability of the strongly sexualised female image to take on all the guilt of the community. Two stories converge here: the troubled unfolding of the relationship between Italian society and fascism, and the difficult relationship with the desire for modernisation. The fact that Rosina fled towards the world of film, whether it was true or just a fantasy dreamed up by the people of Leonessa, opens another area of reflection on the associations between cinema, dreams and magic. A woman like that could only have been destined for the world of the “divas”.
Manlio Miserocchi, Il Festival Internazionale del film a Venezia
, in “L’illustrazione Italiana”, 28 agosto 1932, p. 278.
Filippo Sacchi, Serata d’onore
, in “Il Corriere della Sera”,12 agosto 1932, p. 5